This post tries to document a recent shift in how I’m making music.
We live in a golden age of audio recording. Between gear, powerful computers, and available information a single person has never had as equal a playing field as a professional studio.
But at the same time, with endless options and tools at my disposal, there’s endless ways for me to spend more time polishing a track. I spent last summer making techno in Ableton. I would start by building 3 or 4 loops, pick the parts that i like, and then proceed to arrange, mix, and master the track. It would take about a week to make a song, working 3-4 hours per night every night.
But when I play my music back to back to my inspiration mix of music for the project, my tracks don’t really hold up. I also felt that, song after song, I was getting better at mixing and mastering, but the end result was not necessarily a better song overall - just a clearer mix. In fact, the song that people liked best was the song I wrote the quickest, and spent the least effort mixing. The song that has the cleanest mix is also the song that has the least “soul” when I listen to it.
For the sake of this post I’m going to say there are at least 2 distinct parts of making music: the art, and the science. For the most part, the science is the time spent after the majority of the song has been written. It’s the recording, mixing, late stage arrangement, and mastering.
The art is harder to define. It is what makes a song “catchy”, “energetic”. It is what elicits an emotional response. It is understanding the energy flow of the song. It is what some producers call “having good taste”. Some of the important parts of the art can be learnt as tools - suspense, tension, and release are important to identify and understand.
You get better at both the science and the art through deliberate practice. The key point of this post is, assess your music and decide if you want to work on getting better at the art, or the science, and try to spend more than half your time on whichever one needs work.
Now like with attempting to subcategorize anything, the boundaries between the art and science are actually quite hazy. I do not want to get pedantic in defining whether each skill falls under art or science. It is simply a way of conceptualizing the time you are spending on making music.
So why am I writing this? I think we as a general group of aspiring artists, spend too much time working on the science, and not enough time working on the art. Last summer, per song, I would spend maybe one session coming up with all the main parts of a song. I would then spend the next 6 nights mixing and arranging those ideas. And then when I was done, it was the artistic elements of the song that fell flat. So I was spending ~20% of my time working on the aspect of the song that needed the most work - no wonder I wasn’t satisfied with the end result!
I think in the community there are two primary reasons why producers tend to focus too much time on mixing and not enough time on the artistic content of their music. The scientific aspects are much easier to quantitatively define and measure. Does this bass sound as fat as that bass? Which song is louder? Does this snare fit for the subgenre? Because it’s easier to define, advice and tutorials on the scientific elements of the craft flood the ecosystem. Blogs and Youtube videos are over saturated with 5 minute tips and tricks to get that fatter 808. But fatter 808s don’t make a good song.
Community feedback from other producers also tends to focus on the scientific. It’s easier to define, it feels more constructive, and well.. If you ask a group of people who mostly spend their time on the science half of the craft, they’re going to think about what they know when they listen to your song. There is also often an over-arching tone of positivity in feedback communities, where telling someone their song is lifeless would come across as rude. Or perhaps the problem is that, while the listener knows the song is lifeless, they are lacking the vocabulary and definition to explain “why” it is lifeless.
If this resonates with you, what should you do about it? I am not advocating giving up on mixing. A song needs to sound decent for the artistic message to be conveyed. The more you know about mixing/mastering, the faster you can make a decent mix. What I am advocating for is, assess the artistic and scientific elements of your music individually, and decide which side needs more work.
To focus on the artistic elements more, change how you work. How did you write beats when you first started out and knew nothing about mixing? You probably were having more fun back then. Try that fun process again with your expanded mixing knowledge. Personally, I’ve found that trying to make music entirely on one or two pieces of hardware, and recording the stereo output as the final mix, lets me get into the creative zone faster and longer. The side benefit of spending more time just working on one or two pieces of hardware is that, well.. it is a lot more fun than spending those hours auditioning kick samples.